WILKES-BARRE — Social activism is alive and well today for any number of causes.
Back in the late 1800s, Ellen Webster Palmer was well-known for her outspoken disapproval of children working in the coal mining industry of her time. That stance, and the great lengths to which she went to usher in change, eventually earned her the title “The Friend of the Working Boy.”
Palmer was born in Plattsburg, N.Y., in 1839. She would eventually marry lawyer and Pennsylvania attorney general Henry W. Palmer and move to the Wilkes-Barre area.
It was then that she would learn about the “breaker boys.”
John Hepp, history professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, called the young workers a “symbolic” image of the anthracite coal industry.
“They’re sort of the most famous image that Northeast Pennsylvania has,” Hepp said.
Children were expected sometimes to work six days a week for as long as 10 hours a day picking rocks out of the mined coal as it moved along on large conveyor belts at the breaker. Injuries were common, but fatalities were rare, Hepp said, except for “truly regrettable accidents.”
Hepp said the idea was that children would be good at the work at the breakers because of their small hands. The practice was widely accepted as a part of the anthracite coal industry, even though it was illegal for young children to actually work in the mines.
Chester Kulesa, site administrator for the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, called the position of breaker boy “the lowest rung of the anthracite employment ladder” at the time.
Hepp also said it was an accepted fact in the “family enterprise” of mining. Fathers would work in the mines with the older sons, while younger sons would work the horses outside of the mines.
“Prior to the 1920s, it would have been fairly common to find boys working in the coal breakers as slate pickers,” Kulesa said. “Older boys found their first jobs in the mines (underground) as door tenders, runners and mule drivers.”
When families would move into the area to enter the coal-mining business, everybody pitched in for the good of the family.
“These were large families that came from rural settings,” Hepp said. “What they looked at … was a decent combined family wage.”
A time for change
By the 1880s, children had begun working on the conveyor belts. It wasn’t too long afterward that Palmer moved to the area in 1891.
After learning of the boys’ working conditions, Palmer established the Boys’ Industrial Association (BIA). Children who worked the mines were provided an education in subjects such as reading, writing and math through the BIA.
Kulesa said the organization also was a way to provide entertainment for the boys.
The mine industry had a way of preventing that intellectual growth from happening otherwise. Hepp said children working in the mines were essentially finished with their education.
“It almost doomed them even having the potential of their fathers, many of whom had an education to at least (age) 10 or 12,” he said.
Essentially, Hepp said, Palmer held “meetings” with the boys to provide them with an education. Those meetings were initially held in vacant stores, and eventually on the fourth floor of City Hall.
The BIA constructed its own building behind City Hall in 1899, where the police station stands today.
Palmer died in 1918 at age 78.
A statue of her used to stand near the Luzerne County Courthouse, but it was removed to undergo restoration. In particular, Palmer’s nose was missing from the original statue.
County Councilman Edward Brominski said the statue has been sent to Baut Studios Inc. in Swoyersville for restoration.
Hepp thought it was interesting that Palmer, initially an outsider, expressed such distaste for the practice of employing young children. Nevertheless, he said that her efforts had an impact on the region’s history.
“She’s our local example of a very wealthy person who basically volunteered her time … to do something really, really important,” Hepp said.